Once again, it’s a pleasure to speak with Bruce LaBruce. Bruce is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, photographer, writer, and artist based in Toronto. He has been gracious to offer his time to Psychology of Aesthetics Magazine.
Robert Frashure: Hi Bruce! Thanks for joining us again.
Bruce LaBruce: The pleasure is all mine, Robert.
Robert Frashure: That’s great to hear!
Well, so my first question is have your parents or family members seen your art? How did they respond?
Bruce LaBruce: As I mentioned, my parents are farmers with grade school education, and have never really become aware of certain kinds of artistic – or pornographic – practices. (Although I was shocked as a teen to find a copy of The Joy of Sex in my mother’s bureau!) They’re not on the Internet, and they’ve never seen much, if any, pornography. But they’re quite broad-minded, and they love and trust me. So they know that I make film and photographic work that they can’t see, but they’re aware of my career in broad strokes and support me in that regard. Some of my siblings have seen some of my film work, but I don’t think they’re very fond of it! I do have one sister who teaches film at University, so she is the one who is most open to what I do. My youngest sister watched one of my films once and I didn’t hear from her for about a year!
Robert Frashure: Which artists, writers, thinkers, performers have been particularly influential to you in your development as an artist? Were there artists that you looked up to the most growing up, and have these changed over the course of your career?
Bruce LaBruce: I think I mentioned quite a few gay avant-garde filmmakers that influenced my development as a filmmaker, and still do. I was also very deeply influenced by a certain style of independent filmmakers from the seventies – artists like John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Frank Perry, Jerry Schatzberg, Barbara Loden, etc. – narrative filmmakers with a sense of experimentalism, radical impulses, and aesthetic rigour. I also love a lot of classic Hollywood filmmakers, like Robert Aldrich, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Ida Lupino, etc. And of course European auteurs like Fassbinder, Antonioni, Godard, Chabrol, Bertolucci, Antonioni, Agnes Varda, Bergman, and on and on. In university I was hugely influenced by poets like Sylvia Plath (I took poetry and creative writing classes), Oscar Wilde, Stevie Smith, Hart Crane, etc. I’ve always been inspired particularly by great female actors, from classical ones, like Bette Davis, Ida Lupino, Lizbeth Scott, Barbara Stanwyck, to more contemporary ones like Jane Fonda, Jean Seberg, Faye Dunaway, Tuesday Weld, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, etc. And of course actors like Laurence Harvey and Dirk Bogarde. Warhol was a huge influence, particularly his film work. Art filmmakers like Maya Deren and Robert Frank. Photographers like Helmut Newton, Peter Hujar, Diane Arbus, and my friend Terry Richardson. I was profoundly influenced by Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder as a teenager. My influences have changed that much over the years, but there are so many.
Robert Frashure:I am curious whether you think art has the power to influence politics and perhaps change society for the “better.” Is it too much to ask of transgressive art that it might push people to challenge the restrictive boundaries of society and make change? Is art mere entertainment? Which of your artworks, if any, do you think have most powerfully inspired viewers to push back against the restrictive boundaries in their own lives?
Bruce LaBruce: I do think art can influence politics and change society. I’m not a pop culture snob; in other words, I regard pop culture as art that can be interesting and influential. Much that’s going on now in the mainstream, corporate art world I find really boring and trite. I’m indifferent to artists like Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, who pay lip service to radicalism and anti-establishment ideas, but who are really only interested in marketing, money and ego. The mainstream art world is also very conventional and conservative, in its way. Mainstream Hollywood cinema, right up until around 1980, used to be extremely significant in terms of interpreting or critiquing cultural and social norms, and reflecting the zeitgeist. Not so much now, as it is controlled by reactionary corporate forces which are only interested in reinforcing the status quo. Mandingo, for example, directed by the great Richard Fleischer, is a far more interesting, complex, and political movie about slavery than 10 Years a Slave, which is essentially a movie designed for guilty white liberals. Mandingo is far more willing to delve into the taboos of sexuality as they relate to issues of power, dominance, and submission based on race and class, and thereby appealed to a less art house and intellectual, more broad-based, mass audience. Pulp or trash art and fiction often have more cultural influence than highbrow art.
My first feature, No Skin Off My Ass, came out at a specific time, the early nineties, when it was important for queer people to have their sexuality recognized and validated, and to have it represented in a sophisticated, aesthetic, romantic, and pornographic style. It was also a deeply personal film, so I’ve been told it inspired lots of queer people to express their sexuality more freely and unapologetically. My film The Raspberry Reich was a direct response to the aftermath of 9/11, especially in the USA and Canada, a period in which radical leftist rhetoric, or pronouncements against nationalism or patriotism, became almost taboo. Even though it also acts as a critique of certain styles of the radical left, it also loudly proclaimed ideas and slogans that directly challenged the status quo, sexual conservatism, capitalism, and western hegemony. So for me, and for a small cult, I suppose, it was quite liberating! My film Gerontophilia, which came out several years ago, not only critiqued the way that old people are treated now in neo-liberal times – ignored, shunted off to poorly-staffed institutions, over-medicated in order to be manageable, zombified – but also supported the notion of healthy sexuality for the elderly – either with each other, or which people much younger, like gerontophiles, people who appreciated the aged sexually and aesthetically. From the feedback I got, it gave people who or aging or aged a lot of positive reinforcement and hope, and even some glamour! So that’s always a good thing for art to do!
Robert Frashure: The final question is: do you have any advice for the next generation of artists that you wish someone might have told you when you were launching your career? Perhaps advice on how to survive as an artist in this world and deal with criticism, or how to summon the courage to continue pushing back against the repression and seemingly soul-crushing boundaries of society?
Bruce LaBruce: I always hesitate to give out too much advice, because the path I’ve chosen is not an easy one, and I still struggle every day to make my art and be true to myself and my vision, and even make a living. It’s not for everybody. Facing and dealing with criticism is never easy, but it’s something you learn to accept and even respect over time. I used to subscribe more to the idea that great art always comes from mutilated egos, from torturous experiences and extreme behavior, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s certainly not sustainable. I think artists starting out should be open to a lot of experiences, and to taking risks, and to pushing themselves outside their comfort zones, but it doesn’t have to be self-destructive, or destructive to others. I love Fassbinder’s films, and that was certainly, by all accounts, his methodology, but he also died at 37! (He also directed 44 films in 18 years, so he packed a lot into those 37 years!) I think it’s important to not make work based on what others will think of you, especially your family. Self-censorship is never good for artistic expression. My advice is: take care of your body and mind (yoga has always been my method, since I was a teenager), watch your posture, have good manners, be kind, be political (in the broader sense), be open-minded, and experimental. Question authority. Challenge the status quo. Have good orgasms, and treat Mother Earth with respect. Develop your own style and aesthetic. Be unique, be individualistic, be Freudian, and be free.